Searching for Picture Books about Segregation and Civil Rights Struggles – Outside the South!

A historical protest for racial equality with people holding signs that advocate for open housing and an end to racial discrimination, set against a backdrop of vintage cars and an overcast sky.

Decorative Icon. An illustrated image of a stack of three books.

Alice Levine has been an educator for more than 40 years, primarily working with adult learners and families. Ms. Levine has also been active in social justice causes, especially immigration justice, for many years. Starting during her decades of work with parents, guardians, and families in the Boston Public Schools, she developed a particular interest in finding books that reflect the cultures and life experiences of all families. As a semi-retired professional, Ms. Levine offers teacher training and consultation focused on using books about all kinds of diversity and social justice issues with children and teens.

Positionality Statement: Alice Levine is a 70 year old white, Jewish woman, living in Western MA. In working on developing her understanding of the narratives she learned about race and racism while growing up in a diverse (though segregated) community in NJ, she has spoken with both Black and white peers to better understand the realities of those who are the direct targets of racism. She is also currently spending time talking to Black families who have roots or life experience in both the North and the South, to ensure that she is clearly seeing both the similarities and the differences in the experiences of racism in the different regions, especially during the period of 1940 – 1970.

Living Through a Northern Civil Rights Struggle in the 60’s…and Still Thinking Civil Rights Meant the South!

I have spent the last 2 years looking closely at my formative years in Englewood, NJ during the 1960’s, and rethinking the narratives about race, racism, and the Civil Rights Movement I learned in my white liberal family and my supposedly liberal school system.

I experienced, from the margins I’d now say, an awareness of people in the community (including my parents) fighting for desegregation of the elementary schools, as well as the final victory for school integration when I was in fourth grade. My mother also took my older sister to the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King made his I Have a Dream speech, and took 3 of us to the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, also in DC. So, I certainly did not grow up in a family where race, discrimination, segregation, or civil rights were not discussed.

In spite of that, I accepted for most of my life that “real” segregation (e.g. bathrooms and water fountains with signs) happened only in the South and that the real Civil Rights Movement (as far as I know, even the primary reason we went to DC), was about supporting the struggle in Southern states.

My mother liked to make a teaching moment out of every opportunity and so she also told us repeatedly that there were two kinds of (very distinct) segregation, de jure (by law) and de facto–which I understood to mean it “just happened.” As James Baldwin wrote,

And so, I lived through a local civil rights battle which was discussed regularly at our dinner table, but still grew up thinking “South” as soon as I heard the words “Civil Rights.”

Starting to Learn about the “Jim Crow North”

A few years ago, I was teaching an adult immigrant how to read in English, and we worked with a Scholastic early reader written by Ruby Bridges herself about her experience integrating a school in New Orleans, LA–clearly in the South! The first page of the book says,

The first pages of the book Ruby Bridges Goes to School (2009). 
An open book with historical imagery and text discussing racial segregation; left page shows a worn banner advocating for a white-only community, with explanatory text underneath, right page shows a photo of a boy holding a racist sign about school segregation.
The first pages from the book Ruby Bridges Goes to School (2009)

I (and most other readers, I bet) assumed that “some people” meant Southerners and “some places” meant in the South, and that the photo above the text on the first page was from someplace near New Orleans.

However, in doing some browsing on the internet, I came across this same photo and found out it had actually been taken in Detroit, MI–in the North!

Detroit, Michigan. Riot at the Sojourner Truth homes, a new U.S. federal housing project, caused by white neighbors' attempt to prevent Negro tenants from moving in. Sign with American flag "We want white tenants in our white community," directly opposite the housing project.
“Detroit, Michigan.” 1942. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

And just in case readers think, “Well that was 1942; surely things were better in the North by the time of the Civil Rights Movement”:  

In June of 1963, MLK and other Black leaders led a Walk to Freedom in Detroit. That was the largest civil rights march (100,000 people) at that time, only to be surpassed by the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (250,000) several months later.

And so, as I’ve become clearer about the discrepancy between what I experienced or have learned about recently, and what the mainstream narrative has said about Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, I’ve looked to find books that would give me a more complete and accurate understanding of history.  One book that had a great impact on me was The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South by Brian Purnell, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard (2019). After learning a lot from the small number of books for adults (almost all written in the last 20 years) that focus on Jim Crow and Civil Rights outside the South (including the North, West, and Midwest). I started wondering what was available for teachers and students–and so I began my search, focusing primarily on picture books.  

Books for Children about Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement Outside the South

When my local children’s librarian did a search for me of the very large New York Public Library catalog, she found 268 books for ages 0-12 about the Civil Rights Movement!  Out of all the many Civil Rights books I’ve looked at or which others have suggested, I found only about 8 books (2½% of the total) that I would recommend that take place outside the South during the period of 1940 – 1970. (I looked for stories where the racism that is described took place North of the Mason Dixon Line or West of Texas.) There were a few other books that could have been included but they were only tangentially related or didn’t reflect the reality of racism in the North.

Book cover of "Step by Step!: How the Lincoln School Marchers Blazed a Trail to Justice" by Debbie Rigaud (2023).

The only picture book I have found so far that tells the story of an organized Civil Rights protest in a Northern state is Step by Step!: How the Lincoln School Marchers Blazed a Trail to Justice by Debbie Rigaud (2023). The book tells the true story of a fight for school desegregation in Ohio in 1954 (right after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision had made school segregation illegal). The Zinn Education Project has a lot more wonderful information about this protest, including a trailer for a short documentary about the Lincoln School marchers, and a link to the full story of this historic event which includes photos and descriptions of some of the leading marchers (now 72-80 years old).

Book cover for "Going Places: Victor Hugo Green and His Glorious Book" by Tonya Bolden (2022).

I often learn a lot when reading picture books, but when I picked up the next book, looking for evidence of segregation and exclusion in the North, I was taken aback by what I found.  I had already looked at several other picture books about The Green Book and had heard about (though not seen) the Hollywood movie.  Based on the narratives I had learned, I just assumed that The Green Book was primarily about places in the South where Black families would be welcomed–because, after all, that’s where I thought the big problems with public accommodations were found. However, when I read Going Places: Victor Hugo Green and His Glorious Book by Tonya Bolden (2022), I was shocked to find that the creator of this incredibly important resource was a postal worker in Leonia, the town right next to mine in New Jersey! I further learned that the early editions of The Green Book (begun in 1946) included only accommodations in the greater New York area.  Another myth destroyed.  This particular title about The Green Book seems like a crucial one for children and adults to read and discuss.

Book cover of "A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington" by Carole Boston Weatherford and Rob Sanders (2022)

A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington by Carole Boston Weatherford and Rob Sanders (2022) is a thought-provoking book that discusses the importance of Rustin’s work as the architect behind the 1963 March on Washington–as well as the prejudice he faced (inside and outside of the movement) because he was a gay man.  Although this book does not focus on Jim Crow and Civil Rights in the North, (for more information about racism in Rustin’s hometown of West Chester, PA see this tribute to him) I was very struck by the demands of the March on Washington (listed at the back of the book) which were clearly relevant to the country as a whole, not just the South. The pages below, taken from the book (one from the story and the other a historical document from the actual march) may help children and adults discuss the question:

Illustration of people marching with red protest signs advocating for civil rights against a blue, textured background, with historical text about a gathering at the National Mall.
Illustration by Byron McCray from A Song for the Unsung: Bayard Rustin, the Man Behind the 1963 March on Washington by Carole Boston Weatherford and Rob Sanders (2022).
A list of the ten civil rights demands of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.
A list of the ten civil rights demands of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Source: Civil Rights Movement Archive.
Book cover of "Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation" by Duncan Tonatiuh (2014).
Book cover of "Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez" by Larry Dane Brimner (2021).

Most of the picture books I found were published very recently, but I also learned some US history that I was unaware of, when I read and used Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (2014), almost ten years ago.  My students and I learned that there was a desegregation case that went to court in California in 1944, seven years before Brown vs. Board of Education.  This was a case of Mexican-American children not being allowed to go to the same schools as white children. This book broadens children’s understanding of racism and segregation as impacting Mexican-American children and families, as well as the more commonly known exclusion of Black students. And I learned about an even earlier segregation case in California by reading the 2021 book Without Separation: Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez by Larry Dane Brimner, which tells of a 1930’s case in Lemon Grove, CA that also argued against the segregation of Mexican American students.

Book cover of "Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged!" by Jody Nyasha Warner (2010).

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged! by Jody Nyasha Warner (2010) tells the story of a Black Canadian civil rights hero who refused to move out of the segregated section of a theater in Nova Scotia in 1946.  The picture book gives a very clear description of how in Canada, as in the Northern US, racial words were often not used (by either the theater manager or in the courts) but everyone knew that Black people were being kept out solely because of their race. 

Book cover of "The United States v. Jackie Robinson" by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (2022).

The United States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen (2022) focuses on some of the lesser-known parts of Jack Robinson’s life including the racism he faced during his childhood in California in the 1920’s and 1930’s. “Jack Robinson grew up in Pasadena, California at a time when the public pools were open to black children only once a week, then drained immediately afterward and refilled with fresh water for the white children who would swim the rest of the time.”  (A similar story was told to me about a public school swimming pool in my hometown, probably during the 1950’s.)  The book also includes a description of the racism Robinson faced on the football field at University of California, Los Angeles and the fact that he only joined the army because he wasn’t allowed to play in the major leagues.  The story continues with the racism he faced in the US military, including his court martial for refusing to move to the back of a military bus in spite of the fact that there were regulations indicating that the military buses were supposed to be integrated.  More information about this civil rights struggle can be found on this PBS video.

Two different picture books have been written about Mabel Fairbanks, an accomplished figure skater who was not allowed to practice in rinks in NYC or to compete nationally.  The two books are Ice Breaker: How Mabel Fairbanks Changed Figure Skating by Rose Viña (2019) and Marvelous Mabel: Figure Skating Superstar by Crystal Hubbard (2022).  Discrimination and exclusion of Black skaters, including Fairbanks and the many great skaters she coached, continued well into the 1960’s. Even today, the sport is inaccessible to most Black skaters.

Book cover for "Ice Breaker: How Mabel Fairbanks Changed Figure Skating" by Rose Viña (2019).
Book cover for "Marvelous Mabel: Figure Skating Superstar" by Crystal Hubbard (2022).

Picture Books about Civil Rights Struggles in the 1800’s

Because of the great dearth of materials about the Civil Rights era in the North and West, I eventually broadened my search and found several great books about northern segregation and resistance to it that occurred in the mid to late 19th century.

Book cover for "Mamie Tape Fights to Go to School" by Traci Huahn (2024).

One book that has just been published broadens the historical landscape to include the complete exclusion of Asian Americans from school in San Francisco in the 1880’s!  Mamie Tape Fights to Go to School by Traci Huahn (2024) tells the true story of a Chinese-American family who won a court case that would allow their daughter to attend school, even though the school district then decided to set up a separate (and unequal) school for Asian children.  This is a story of anti-Asian hatred and discrimination that is important for children (and adults) to know about.  

Book cover for "The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial" by Susan E. Goodman (2016).

The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman (2016) tells the story of a Black girl who was already in a classroom in a predominantly white school in East Boston, and was forcibly removed by police!  I was totally unaware that 100 years before the notorious Boston school integration battles of the 1970’s, “in 1855, Boston stepped into the history books as the first major American city to officially integrate its schools.”  Children and adults may be spurred by this story to learn about how the Boston schools became re-segregated in the intervening decades.  

Book cover for "Lizzie Demands a Seat! Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Street Car Rights" by Beth Anderson (2020).

Finally, Lizzie Demands a Seat! Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Street Car Rights by Beth Anderson (2020) is a book that would be great to use as children learn about Rosa Parks’ arrest and the bus boycott that followed. This book tells the story about a significantly-less-well-known fight that happened on public transportation in New York City! It is based on the true story of a teacher who was bodily removed from the street car by the conductor and a police officer when the driver attempted to bar her from the car because she was Black.

Beyond Picture Books

Although my search focused primarily on picture books, I want to mention a couple of other exceptional books that I discovered and which can be used with upper elementary and middle school students.

Book cover for "North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South" by Mark Speltz (2016).

One of these is the photo documentary book North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South by Mark Speltz (2016).  In addition to lesser-known photos of civil rights struggles (many of them against housing and employment discrimination) in such places as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Newark, and Philadelphia, the book includes an excellent timeline of civil rights struggles outside the South which can be used alongside timelines of the better-known southern struggles.   

Book cover for "The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks, Adapted for Young People" by Jeanne Theoharis, and Brandy Colbert (2021).

A wonderful book for middle grades and high school is  The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks, Adapted for Young People by Jeanne Theoharis, and Brandy Colbert (2021).  For many reasons, this book is exceptional in its depiction of Rosa Parks’ life.  In particular, a number of chapters in this book focus on Rosa Parks in the North such as  “The Northern Promised Land that Wasn’t,” (which is a quote from Rosa Parks),  “Rosa Parks Joins the Fight Up North” and “The Detroit Uprising.”  This book would also provide good background knowledge for teachers or parents reading picture books about Rosa Parks to younger children.

Book cover for "A Long Time Coming: A Lyrical Biography of Race in America from Ona Judge to Barack Obama" by Ray Anthony Shepard (2023).

Finally, I found an anthology of biographies in verse for middle grade students and young adults, A Long Time Coming: A Lyrical Biography of Race in America from Ona Judge to Barack Obama by Ray Anthony Shepard (2023).  The section about MLK includes two poems that address racism and resistance in the North: “Up North” and “Memory.”

I am hoping that there are many other books that I somehow missed in my search; I’m eager to hear from others who have suggestions.  Clearly, the “picture” we paint for children about “real segregation,” and Civil Rights, still (in 2024, as during my school years in the 1960’s) focuses on racism and civil rights as a story exclusively, or at least primarily, of the South.  It is far past time that we give children a broader, deeper, and more accurate view of the history of the North and West in also denying educational, housing, job, and recreational opportunities to Families of Color.

Additional Notes:

  • For those who are interested, here is a more extensive bibliography about Jim Crow and Civil Rights outside the South, including many books geared toward adults, young adults and middle grade readers, as well as the picture books discussed here.  

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